A pilgrimage held on the Day of the Holy Trinity since the 19th century, Lumbier, Spain, 1980.

Blessed Images: The Religious Photography of Cristina García Rodero

In rural Spain, villagers parade with ancient icons like wax heads, leaping devils, and daisy kings alongside Catholic saints.
A pilgrimage held on the Day of the Holy Trinity since the 19th century, Lumbier, Spain, 1980.

If Cristina García Rodero has a motto for her 47-year-long career in photography, it may be something akin to what she told B&W Magazine in a 2017 interview about returning to her native Spain: “We roam the world and very often we don’t know our own country.”

Born in Puertollano, Spain, in 1949, García Rodero has spent decades focusing on her own majority-Catholic country’s lesser-known religious festivals. This is a part of life that many outside Spain might not know about. After all, nearly 70 percent of Spanish citizens identify as Catholic, according to a 2018 survey by the Centre for Sociological Research. But the Iberian Peninsula has undergone a long, tumultuous history of conquest, empire, and overthrow—and while the Spanish Inquisition codified religious intolerance in 1478, religious expression could not be completely homogenized.

Pagan celebrations of the harvest and the changing of the seasons live on in Spain’s rural communities. García Rodero’s black-and-white images depict the familiar iconography of Catholicism—the crucifix, sheep, men in robes—but they also reveal rituals seemingly immune to the influence of the Vatican. In one photo, a man representing the devil hurdles over a group of babies. In another, a couple of newlyweds stand before a priest wearing oversized pig masks.

These ancient traditions can be seen throughout the photographs in García Rodero’s 1989 book, España Oculta, which received widespread critical acclaim that year: it won Book of the Year at the Arles Festival of Photography and the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Fund Grant. She joined the Magnum Photos collective in 2005, and became as a full member in 2009.

Some of the events that García Rodero documented were unknown even to ethnographers who study the region. “There is a denial by many Spaniards that old Spain, the hidden Spain, has no culture,” explained García Rodero in the 2017 interview. “It is really a school, a source of great richness.”

Bajo el cielo protector, Pilgrimage of Nuestra Senora del Corpiño, Losón, Galicia, Spain, 1982.
Puente Genil, Córdoba, Spain, 1976.
The sacrifice, Pilgrimage of Nuestra Señora de los Milagros de Amil, Galicia, 1979.
Heads of wax, Pilgrimage of Santo Cristo de la Agonia de Xende, Galicia, 1977.
Believers doing penance while wearing capirote, or hoods, during Easter Holy Week, Moratalla, Spain, 1980.
Sanctuary of Miracles, Maceda, Galicia, 1977.
El rey de las margaritas (the king of daisies), Buxan, Orense, Spain, 1986.
Newlyweds, Lalín, Galicia, 1993.
Children dressed as angels, Morella, Castellón, Spain, 1987.
The confession, Pilgrimage of Nuestra Señora de los Milagros de Saavedra, Galicia, 1980.
The colacho, or the devil, jumps over babies in a festival dating back to the 17th century that represents the triumph of good over evil. Castrillo de Murcia, Burgos, Spain, 1975.
Antequera, Málaga, Spain, 1977.
Playing on crosses set up for the Passion Play during Easter week, Riogordo, Málaga, Spain, 1983.
El Cristo del Sahúco, Peñas de San Pedro, 1979.
Morella, Castellón, Spain, 1976.
Madrid, 1991.
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